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What Is the Difference Between the NSA and the DHS?

The NSA and DHS perform different roles but share certain information technology responsibilities.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shocked the world. It also sent a shock through U.S. security agencies. In the years that followed, the U.S. government made significant changes to its security infrastructure, with two organizations in particular rising in prominence: the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Both the NSA and DHS play a significant role in keeping the U.S. safe. As such, the two organizations share some similarities. But they also differ in many ways. Here’s what sets them apart and what they have in common.

What Is the Difference Between the NSA and the DHS?

They Have Different Origins

The NSA began in 1952 as a codebreaking agency designed to continue the codebreaking successes of World War II. Initially, the NSA was formed by presidential executive order but was affirmed by an act of congress in 1959.

The DHS is much newer, having been formed by an act of congress in 2002 to centralize multiple security and emergency-response agencies within one department. The agency is a direct response to the September 11 attacks and is specifically designed to enhance communication between security services and better ensure future threats do not slip through the cracks.

They Have Different Focuses

The NSA is a high-tech intelligence and counterintelligence agency. One part of the NSA gathers communications and digital intel from foreign nations and terrorist organizations. The other part of the NSA helps ensure U.S. national security communications and digital information are not accessed by outside persons, groups, or nations. Unlike the CIA, the NSA does not have agents in the field. Its intelligence operations are solely concerned with intercepting and deciphering potentially vital information transmitted through communication networks or stored on computer systems.

The DHS has a much broader focus. The department is responsible for preventing foreign and domestic terrorism, preparing resiliency plans for potential acts of terrorism and natural disasters, and quickly responding if an act of terrorism or natural disaster occurs. The department also has authority over customs, exchange, and immigration, allowing it to monitor and control who and what is coming across the border. In short, the DHS is the agency on point for all terrorist and natural disaster threats and events.

They Have Different Structures

As an intelligence agency, the NSA’s organizational structure and even the number of people it employs is secret. However, intelligence experts estimate that the agency operates on an $8 billion budget and employs between 35,000–55,000 people.1

We know a lot more about the DHS. It’s a matter of public record that the DHS has over 240,000 employees and operates with a budget of over $40 billion. The high numbers of employees and significant budget are due to the DHS being home to 22 different government agencies. The many government agencies under the authority of the DHS include:

Domestic Nuclear Detection Office
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center
Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
U.S. Secret Service

They Are Both Concerned With Cyber Security

The NSA’s counterintelligence operations and the DHS’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) naturally overlap. While the NSA is responsible for just the national security information systems, the NCCIC is responsible for guarding all U.S. government data and rapidly responding to any cyber security threat. In addition, the NCCIC works with private-sector organizations to ensure the overall security and resiliency of the U.S. communications infrastructure.

Together, the NSA and NCCIC division of the DHS form the core of the United States’ cyber security protection. They even co-sponsor the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense, a program that designates educational institutions that meet the NSA and DHS standards of quality and relevance in cyber security and cyber defense disciplines.

You Can Prepare for a Career at Either Organization With an IT Degree

Both the NSA and DHS have numerous opportunities for employment, but one of the fastest growing fields in both agencies is information technology, specifically in the field of cyber security. If you want to work for one of these agencies—or if you want to prepare for an in-demand job in the private sector—you can put yourself on the right path by earning a BS in Information Technology. With a bachelor’s in information technology, you can gain the skills you need for a wide-range of computer science jobs, including database administrator, computer programmer, software engineer/software developer, computer engineering, information security analyst, and data analyst. And once you earn your bachelor's, you can advance your career further by earning you MS in Cybersecurity.

Enhance your career potential even more by earning your information technology degree from a university with a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education designation. Not only has Walden University received this designation, but it is also a Champion of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM). Co-founded and led by the National Cyber Security Alliance and the DHS, NCSAM is celebrated annually in October to promote the awareness of online safety and privacy.2 As an official Champion, Walden pledges its commitment to cyber security and privacy education. With Walden’s online learning platform, it’s more convenient than ever to earn a quality IT degree or cyber security degree. When you earn your BS in Information Technology degree or master’s in cyber security online, you can complete your coursework from home and continue working full time. With the advantages of online education, you can earn the degree you need to start or advance a cyber security or other information technology career. You could even end up working for the NSA or DHS.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online BS in Information Technology and MS in Cybersecurity degree programs online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,